Superb Sealife on the Costa del Sol

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Costa del Sol

If you were thinking that a flat calm, scorching hot Mediterranean beach heaving with paddleboarders and buzzing with jetskis would be a wildlife desert, you would need to think again.

This sea along this section of coast, six miles east of Estepona and within sight of Gibraltar, seems to be particularly fertile. Although on this occasion Gibraltar, thirty miles away, was hidden in mist for the whole six days of our visit. Apart for about five minutes when just the top was visible.

I think it is because the tide sucks the Atlantic into the neck of the Mediterranean to just about here, and the meeting of the warm and cold waters provide a bit of a plankton bloom.

The sea state was perfect for kayaking. Virtually no wind and hardly any swell for the whole time. Just the occasional patch of fog which prompted me to always carry my GPS while paddling offshore.

On the first day I was thrilled to encounter half-a-dozen Cory’s Shearwaters carving around low over the water with their effortless almost bat-like flight. And a kayak in their path didn’t seem to worry them…they just sliced past a few feet away from me with a very slight ‘whoosh’ of their feathers. Absolutely fantastic. Every so often they would shallow plunge-dive into the sea from only a few feet up.

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Cory’s Shearwater
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Cory’s Shearwater

They  shared the sea with groups of Balearic Shearwaters that were passing with a bit more purpose to get somewhere particular. And was that a Sooty Shearwater? Not easy to establish that it was all-brown because I was looking into the sun; maybe it was just a dark Balearic.

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Balearic Shearwater
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Balearic Shearwater

I came across a resting flock of Cory’s and Balearics  a couple of miles offshore, and the five bigger shearwaters seemed to be quite happy as I drifted within yards of them.

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Group of Cory’s Shearwaters
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Beautiful Cory’s Shearwater

Next morning I was out early and headed way offshore again. More shearwaters and I was very surprised to see a Bonxie getting involved with the action. (it was actually no surprise to see a Bonxie ‘in the thick of it’, because that is what Bonxies do best). I was just amazed to see one in The Mediterranean in early July when they should be up north in Scotland or Iceland. Maybe a youngster that hadn’t bothered to migrate.

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Unseasonal Mediterranean Bonxie

While sitting about on glassy water absorbed by the seabird action  I heard a series of ‘splashes’ approaching. A large number of dolphins scattered over a wide area of sea were heading towards me. They were travelling very fast and spent such a short time at the surface I really couldn’t see any markings and didn’t have a hope of a photograph. But surely Common Dolphins. At least thirty or forty, but probably a lot more.

After lunch I went for a paddle along the coast with Becky and we had soon spotted another group of dolphins, this time a lot slower, and feeding ,judging by the attendant gulls and shearwaters.IMG_6750

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

As we paddled at top speed to see them a gin-palace powerboat also saw them and adjusted course, as did a jetski…groan!

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Jetski pursuing dolphin
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Common Dolphins, jetski, Becky

The reason they were slow is that there were a lot of calves in the group, and they were sticking like glue beside their mothers. They changed direction and swam right past us. In kayaks we represented very little threat to the dolphins but the jetski was far to keen to get his photos and chased them far too vigorously. Becky managed to scowl at the driver and, credit to him, he did back off.

We watched and had a pretty reasonable view for about fifteen minutes. The pod of about 15 then swam directly offshore, pursued by the jetski at a slightly more respectable distance. Still not good, however, because some of the calves were very small and so understandably slow.

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

Incredibly, we had another dolphin encounter the next day, no doubt helped by the completely smooth surface which makes seeing fins that much easier. Jake and Christina reported seeing a lone dolphin in the morning, and scanning the sea from the shore with binoculars later I saw a big-looking fin a couple of miles away. I powered towards it in the Tribord Kayak which has a pretty decent top speed (about 5 mph). However it took ages to get within naked eyeball range of the dolphin, and it was heading away from me. I watched it surface a couple of times several hundred yards ahead of me and then gave up. Fatigue.

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Distant ?Bottlenose Dolphin

It was a big dolphin with a prominent dorsal fin. I would think a Bottlenose but I just wondered about a Risso’s, especially as I had seen a couple of gulls finishing off some dead cuttlefish which are Risso’s dolphins favourite snack. It didn’t look grey or pale so Bottlenose looks most likely.

On the last day I glimpsed a large streamlined creature, the size of a dolphin, jumping out of the water once only. Just for a fraction of a second. Then nothing more, and nothing surfaced to breathe. I’m pretty sure it was a giant Tuna. I need to get a photo of one of these soon as this is the second time I have seen one in Spain, in addition to a similarly fleeting view of a group in Falmouth bay last autumn.

All these creatures shared the busy Mediterranean waters with numerous pleasure boats and commercial fishing boats, including large offshore trawlers whose throbbing engines provided the constant sound backdrop to the superb viewing.

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Typical Mediterranean Scene
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Not so typical Mediterranean Scene

Medley of Scottish Lochs

It had to happen sooner or later. After many years of being incredibly lucky with the weather during my Spring trips to Scotland, mid May 2017 looked as though it was going to let me down. The forecast was stiff winds from the west and intermittent rain. The west coast would have been no fun. I still can’t believe I was so fortunate with my two month expedition round the west coast and islands three years ago when I only lost one or two days to strong winds.

Plan B was to paddle in the relative shelter of various freshwater lochs, and ideally the ones with no roads along the sides to maximise the chance of wildlife encounters.

I drove the 650 miles from Holsworthy to Taynuilt beside Loch Etive near Oban in one very long day, and during the night as I was curled up in my sleeping bag the car was rocked by a gusty wind coming down from the mountains. Loch Etive was definitely no-go for a kayak so I sought the quieter waters of Loch Awe a few miles away.

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Loch Awe

It was windy and quite warm and dry so pretty reasonable. I drifted close enough to a Dipper for a reasonable photograph, always difficult because they are generally not that tame and are usually amongst dark rocks which makes getting the exposure right difficult.

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Dipper

In a sheltered bay on the north bank I was very surprised to come across a Great Northern Diver, still in its winter plumage (although it was 12 May). This looked like a  juvenile from last years brood.

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Great Northern Diver

I was very keen not to frighten it by getting too close but it allowed me to drift to about twenty yards away while it continued to dive. I got what I thought were some great images but noticed that every so often it would ‘gag’ slightly in a unnatural manner.

Upon reviewing the images I fell into an instant gloom when I saw the fishing line wrapped around its bottom mandible and trailing out behind it. Poor blooming thing. It’s flown all the way from Iceland or further to grace the UK with its amazing presence, just to get tangled up in  discarded fishing tackle.

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GND with fishing line wrapped around lower mandible

There wasn’t a hope of being able to help it as it seemed to be swimming and diving quite normally (and probably catching some fish) but I think its long term outlook is pretty hopeless.

I was lured into one of the lochside Bluebell woods for lunch by the dazzling colour.

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Loch Awe Bluebells

Just as I was completing my twenty mile circuit and trying to avoid the many fishing speedboats around a marina on the southern side of the Loch, I had a superb view of a couple of Black-throated Divers, these ones in full breeding plumage. They are exciting enough to see when dressed in their two-tone winter outfit around the bays of SW England, but in their breeding plumage they are arguably the UK’s most beautifully marked bird. This is definitely the case if you are photographing in black-and-white.

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Black-throated Divers

I was very careful not to approach too close to cause them distress, but they seemed relatively happy with several small fishing boats plying past and me floating about in my kayak, and continued to look for fish by dipping their heads underwater.

Black-throated Divers at their nest sites are super-sensitive to disturbance which includes photographers getting too close for that perfect photo.

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Black-throated Divers

I spent the weekend with son Henry who was working in Stirling, and the wildlife action continued, now focused around his enormous telephoto lens rather than my kayak. While sitting in his hide at 6am it was a thrill to hear,simultaneously, a cuckoo calling on a distant hillside, a snipe drumming overhead (sounding more like a mosquito), the bubbling call of a dozen Blackcocks which were ‘lekking’ (displaying) nearby, and the honking call of a pair of divers (Red-throats I think) flying overhead. Tremendous, and well worth the effort of turfing out of bed early. And we saw a Hen Harrier.

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The forecast was wet so when I left Henry on Monday morning I opted for a circuit around Loch Tummel clad in full waterproof gear. Exciting because I was paddling new shores but otherwise grey and damp.

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Loch Tummel

I was determined to set up my tent for at least one night and although I was very aware that the further west I drove the wetter it would get, I had my eye on the southern shore of Loch Arkaig. It’s got no road access for ten miles along its shore so should feel nice and remote. I should have a decent paddle but not too far if things should ‘blow up’ (meteorologically speaking).

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Loch Arkaig

The first day started dry and quite still but gradually deteriorated into sheet rain with a fair old howling headwind. However I was not going to let it beat me so I dug in with the paddle and ploughed on, waves breaking over the deck, cheered up by the tumbling song of Willow Warblers and peep of numerous Common Sandpipers.

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Common Sandpiper taking a nap

A lucky drier interlude allowed me to pitch my tent at the mouth of a small river a couple of miles before the end of the loch, and after a brew I paddled into an even stronger headwind to the sandy beach at the head of the loch. Typical, this camping spot was better as there was a large area of short-cropped flat grass with no-one in sight. Even better, a Greenshank was piping its slightly haunting and slightly mournful song somewhere upwind not very far away. To me it is the ornithological equivalent of bagpipes.

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Camp on Loch Arkaig

No way was I going to paddle back to my tent and bring it here in these conditions, so I enjoyed the downwind run back to my camp and settled in to read my book. I emptied out a tin of catfood I had brought to lure in the local Pine Martens but needless to say it hadn’t been touched by the time I departed in the morning.

And as usual I fell asleep within five minutes of starting to read. Fortunately a Hercules passing overhead about 5 foot (or so it seemed) above my tent woke me up. But then it was time to go to bed anyway.

The next day dawned sunny and I enjoyed the twelve mile paddle back to the car. A Merlin crossed the loch high above my head and I could hear the bubbling croon of Blackcocks coming from the patch of forest more than a mile away over the water.

My next loch was Loch Ness and I had a specific purpose. I had arranged a rendezvous with a friend who was pedalling (not paddling) from Land’s End to John O’Groats at at the pub in Dores at the eastern end of the loch. I had to be there at 1pm so I thought I should set off by 5am to allow for the odd break.

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Loch Ness

Lovely sunny day, light following wind, great paddle, but virtually zero wildlife apart from two floating (and smelling)deer carcases. And limited viewing and scenic surprises as the loch is dead straight. The trees at the end of the loch which were my destination, were over the horizon when I set off.

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Loch Ness Ducklings

However it was great to see my chum Andrew plus cycling companions, and we were joined by my brother Tim who works nearby. Super pub in super location by nice beach.

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The promise of lighter winds the following day lured me down to the sea at the Moray firth, with the hope of an encounter with some of its resident Bottlenose Dolphins.

I paddled out from Ardesier on the southern shore near Fort George in glassy conditions. On approaching Chanonry Point  a distant splashing encouraged me to crank up the pace as it must have been dolphins. Sure enough they soon appeared, and as Bottlenose dolphins always do, they seemed big. This is because they are, and also because the individuals of the Moray Firth pod are reputed to be even bigger than normal as they are one of the furthest north groups in the world and need extra blubber to keep warm.

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Moray Firth Dolphins

Two outliers swam past before a group of five came past satisfactorily slowly and close to allow me a few pics. Interestingly the photographs show a sort of crease below the forehead on some of the bigger dolphins giving them the appearance of a frown, confirming perhaps that they do indeed have more blubber than some of their species that inhabit warmer climes.

I paddled a few miles up the coast of the Black Isle for lunch then back past Rosehearty beach. It was great to hear the constant cheerful call of passing terns.

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Common Tern

The dolphin watchers were out in force as I crossed back over to Ardesier. The dolphins obliged by fishing a few metres off the point for much of the afternoon….I could even see their fins through binoculars from two miles away when I got back to the car.

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Chanonry Point
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Chanonry Point dolphin watchers

My final short paddle adventure was in the rain at Loch Insh, the highlight being a couple of broods of newly hatched Goldeneye, and an Osprey.

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Goldeneye brood

Although I did break the appallingly slow and traffic laden drive back to Devon with a quick ten miles on the River Avon at Tewkesbury. Perfect, warm ,still.

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Dolphins!

This was forecast to be the last day of the cam weather in SW England before the high pressure moved away. In fact today was a bonus day because the winds were originally supposed to pick up overnight.

Despite spending virtually all day on the water yesterday I thought I’d better make the effort to go somewhere special and maybe do a bit of offshore paddling. Mount’s Bay should fit the bill nicely, with hopefully some cetacean sightings.

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Arrival at Sandy Bay

I arrived at Sandy Bay beside Newlyn harbour a bit later than I had intended. Although it’s not at all sandy it’s got a great view across the bay so I was going to have breakfast in a relaxed manner (muesli) before paddling off, while looking for marine wildlife through my binoculars.

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Sandy Bay…it’s not sandy

No chance of relaxation. Within five seconds of lifting the binoculars to my eyes and focusing on the sea a mile away off Penlee point, I was watching a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moving steadily across the bay towards St. Michael’s Mount. Aaargh, if only I had arrived ten minutes earlier I would have been beside them.

I got all my kayaking  stuff together in a record time (including packing muesli and milk) and went tearing off across the completely smooth water at Olympic pace. But the dolphins were gone so I throttled back and made a bee-line for St Michael’s Mount anyway. They might just be hanging around feeding somewhere.

I stopped for (late) breakfast in the middle of the bay and then cruised on. The briefest flash of sun reflected off the surface, which shouldn’t have happened because there were no waves. Just maybe it was a dolphin’s fin.  There it was again, and this time it was followed by a splash. Yes!

I cranked the speed back up to over 5 mph, and soon started to see quite a few fins appearing, together with puffs of spray. I could hear the blows. The dolphins were now heading back towards me, so I drifted to a halt and waited. As they approached I could hear the engine of the Marine Discovery catamaran coming up behind me from Penzance harbour.

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Marine Discovery Yacht

They put on a superb show right in front of us, surging about all over the place and occasionally hurling themselves right out of the water or just splashing on their sides. It was totally enthralling as there were quite a lot of them ( 15-20) and they are quite big creatures. In a kayak there is a feeling of uncertainty when they come really close.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

After a brief chat with the Marine Discovery folk, and hearing the dolphins clicking on their hydrophone, they (Marine Dicovery) continued on their way, but I stayed to see more. This is the sort of excitement that fuels my paddling muscles. (as well as the muesli)

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Bottlenose Dolphins

I spent over an hour watching them. Just me and the dolphins. They worked their way across the bay nearly to Penzance, and then came all the way back again. They accelerated past the end of St. Michael’s Mount and that is where I peeled off.

There were clearly two calves which were not only much smaller but also much paler than the rest. They led the way with the acrobatics and jumped clear of the water on several occasions. They stuck pretty close to Mum and seemed to remain in the middle of the group.

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Acrobatic adolescent dolphin

IMG_2556Two big dolphins with tall blackish fins, which I would presume to be males, patrolled around the outside of the pod like security guards.

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the ‘Security Guards’

I kept a good distance so as not to cause any disturbance, although I was expecting a posse to come over to have a look at me as Bottlenose dolphins have done in the past. A group did approach but then suddenly the whole lot disappeared, left a load of fluke prints all around my kayak, and then popped up a long way away. Maybe they saw me as some sort of threat and were protecting the calves.

I took loads of photos, most with the unexciting backdrop of Penzance industrial estate behind, but then the two bouncers appeared in front of the church (slightly better) before the whole lot passed in front of St. Michael’s Mount (a lot better).

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Bottlenose Dolphin and St. Michael’s Mount

After the dolphin encounter, I paddled across the bay past Mousehole keeping a mile offshore , saw a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, heard a group of four porpoises puffing before I saw them, then popped in for a nose around Mousehole harbour before heading back around the corner to Sandy Bay.

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Mousehole

Maybe the best thing about Bottlenose Dolphins is their permanent smile.

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Bottlenose Dolphin

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Monumental Mullion

IMG_1528The five miles of coast between Mullion Cove and Kynance Cove is nothing short of awesome. As cliffy and intimidating as any other stretch of Cornwall.

If you were just dropped in here you would swear it was the North coast because there is always a restless sort of underlying swell, even on the calm days. It is because this southern section of the lizard peninsular sticks out beyond the protection of the Land’s End peninsular and so receives the full force of whatever is going on in the Atlantic.

It is only on the days when the swell is minimal that it is any fun to do this bit in a kayak (which is not very often). There are large sections of vertical cliff which reflect any waves and so would make it very lumpy in a larger swell, or onshore wind.

I chose a recent day with a small swell and moderate easterly wind. Even this swirled around the headlands and, as usual, seemed to spend much more time blowing in my face than from behind.

At least it was blue sky and the lack of rain over the previous few weeks made the water as clear as I think I have ever seen it.

I set off from Poldhu Cove, a perfect sandy beach a mile or so north of Mullion. Every headland around here seems to have a hotel perched right on top.

Although I have paddled this section twice before, I wasn’t quite expecting the fantastic location of Mullion Cove, squeezed into a gap in the cliffs surrounded by huge buttresses. It seemed to be bigger and better than the last occasions….probably enhanced by the sun.

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Mullion Cove

I bypassed Mullion island with a view to ‘doing’ it on the way back, and ventured round the corner to start the very committing and potentially hostile cliffy bit.

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Mullion Island

However I was soon completely absorbed in the excitement of it all (as usual) but my excitementometer suddenly lurched off the scale when I saw a fin break the water a hundred metres further out. I changed direction to observe and was thrilled to see the grey backs of a couple of Bottlenose Dolphins appear. The first ones I had seen in the UK for three years. They looked big, not surprising as they are up to five times the weight of a Common Dolphin.

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Bottlenose Dolphin

I was rather hoping they would come over to ‘play’ but they didn’t, they just cruised on past at a speed that I wouldn’t be able to match.

Craggy headlands alternated with wide bays backed by tall cliffs. Ogo-dour Cove, Pot Cornick, Gew  graze and Pigeon Ogo. None of these names really bring out the friendliness and softer side of the area. IMG_1656

I nearly leapt out of my skin when an unseen seal snorted and simultaneously splashed just a few feet behind me.

After rounding ‘the Horse’ a sliver of golden sand of Kynance Cove a mile further on provided the promise of a safe haven and a target for a leg stretch. As I approached the water became progressively more turquoise and when hauling my kayak onto the sand I could well see why Kynance has the reputation of the most beautiful beach in Britain. It was high water but only a neap tide so there was still a strip of dry sand. And I had it all to myself because the state of the tide made it inaccessible to walkers. Absolutely superb. I loafed about and slurped coffee from my Thermos and munched a couple of Cookies and felt very Caribbean (apart from the drysuit and thermal underwear side of things).

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Kynance Cove

A minute or two after starting the return leg I encountered a very confiding Razorbill (still in its winter outfit) that was dipping its head underwater to look for fish even when I was only a few feet away.

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Razorbill

Before I took a circuit around Mullion island, and its pungent odour of guano, I pulled up onto another excellent strip of sand just exposed by the receding tide.

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Another ‘kayak only’ beach

Back at Poldhu the beach was a bit different to the zero number of people on it when I set off this morning at 8 am. It echoed to chatter and laughter and the sea floated surfers, paddleboarders and the odd swimmer. Pretty remarkable for mid April. And the sea is still only eleven degrees! (so the swimmers weren’t in long)

Just before I started my ‘final approach’ a seabird with a white belly sat up in the water for a quick wing flap. A Great Northern Diver in full breeding plumage! What a stunner. All the Diver species look a bit ‘plain’ in their winter dress but morph into the most fantastic designs in the summer.

Unfortunately in the only photo that was in focus the bulk of the bird’s body was hidden behind a wavelet.

Great Northern Diver
Great northern Diver

Another cracking day enhanced by the continuing Spring sunshine.